6. Arya Stinson
“Some rules are meant to be broken. Even the laws of physics.”
Reginald Henry Day Library, 6:59 a.m.
The faculty at Slug Brook Academy move with clockwork predictability, as though planets orbiting a sun. Like Mercury, Miss Echo hugs tight to her star: the library. She seldom veers far. Here’s my notebook. Examine my field notes. Pick any date. The page for Miss Echo reads the same every day:
Subject: Miss Echo. Time: 6:54 a.m. Location: East Wing. Observation: Subject descends winding staircase from (what Observer presumptively believes to be) the teachers quarters, carefully managing oscillations of hot liquid (which Observer assumes is English Breakfast tea) in her teacup.
Subject: Same. Time: 7:00 a.m. Location: East Wing, Entrance to Reginald Henry Day Library. Observation: Subject sips from her teacup, smacks her lips in satisfaction, and with a key on a silver chain dangling from her neck, unlocks the doors to the Reginald Henry Day Library.
Subject: Same. Time: 7:02 a.m. Location: Same. Observation: Subject notices Observer—as always, regardless of Observer’s attempts to camouflage herself with the drab surroundings by brushing her mousy brown hair over her face and pretending to be a mop, hiding in the coat of armor, or the many other ingenious methods of spying she’s employed—and says with a smile, “Miss Stinson, it’s a pleasure to see you. How may I best serve your pursuit of scholarly explorations today?” Question: By Subject observing Observer, is Observer changing outcome? Is this some kind of Quantum Uncertainty Principle thing?
Not all the teachers are so scheduled. Miss Sierra is more of an asteroid than a planet—unhinged from a sun yet, nevertheless, on a calculable route. Most mornings, I find her humming showtunes merrily on her way to the Dining Hall, where her mood turns foul as she discovers breakfast is, like always, a form of eggs and a serving of fruit; lamenting aloud, “I’ll disappear if I keep eating like this!” Perhaps this explains why, from time to time, she’s instead found in her office, behind the auditorium stage, smells of cheese and bacon escaping through the shut door’s keyhole. Rarer, I’ve caught her pacing in the North Stairwell, as she practices how to ask Poppy Adams for an autograph, though ultimately psyching herself out. “Miss Adams, would you…? I mean, could I possibly bother you…?” She pinches her full cheeks and slaps herself on the wrist. “No, no, no, you dummy! Headmistress will disapprove. Our priority is to protect the children! It’s of the Highest Order! Emotions lead to distractions. Distractions to mistakes. Mistakes hurt our girls!”
Hypothesis: The faculty of Slug Brook Academy follow predictable orbits from which there is little discernable deviation.
Method of Experiment: Stealthy follow each teacher on multiple occasions and record observations.
Observations: See pages 2 to 142.
Conclusion: Turn to page 143.
Yes, I concede, page 143 is blank. My experiment is incomplete, a fact I’m increasingly irritated by, I assure. I hate loose ends and unsolved theorems.
Sure, at first glance, my hypothesis proves correct. Life at Slug Brook Academy is predictable and calculable, which—hello!—is such an old-fashioned way of seeing the world. Like, I’m talking 17th century, Isaac Newton old-fashioned. Isaac Newton discovered the secret force behind how everything behaved, from orbiting planets to falling apples, was an invisible force he called “universal gravitation”, a.k.a., gravity.
So confident in Newton’s explanation of our universe, by the end of the 19th century, scientists proclaimed the secrets of the universe solved! “All that remains is more precise measurement,” declared a rather cocky physicist, who was recorded in history as “unknown”. The big questions were answered. Case closed.
I guess I can see why people thought this, dumb as it may be. From far away, big objects act predictability. Planets follow set orbits. Comets travel on known paths. Look at your own life. As a kid, when you imagine your future, you can more or less predict the big, far away events. Graduation. Finding a job. Falling in love. Starting a family. Mid-life crisis. Falling out of love. Death.
Once you start looking at matter up close, this predictability goes out the window! It’s replaced with chaos. With possibility. With potential. You don’t end up as a ballerina or an astronaut, like you thought you would as a kid, or a doctor or lawyer like your parents wished. You have a job, yes. You’re a circus clown. Or, maybe a molecular geneticist studying grasshoppers. Your family is four cats, an exotic parrot, and a robot child you adopted from a used parts store. Although the big, faraway events were predictable, life’s nothing like you imagined because when you look at the big stuff faraway, you miss the random and wacky matter that shapes your unique story.
When scientists examined at the smallest building blocks of life, close-up—subatomic particles called quarks—they noticed quarks followed a very different set of rules then the predictable, big objects. In fact, quarks behaved so unpredictability they existed in multiple states of being until the moment they were observed. A quark can exist as a gas, liquid, and solid at the same time, because it hasn’t made up its mind about which one it wants to be yet. Just like Future You can be a ballerina, an astronaut, and a molecular geneticist studying grasshoppers until you’ve chosen one career path! Not until an Observer looks at the quark, does the quark make its decision. This is the foundation of Quantum Physics. I read about it in Advanced Principles of Quantum Computing, the library book which I’m on way to return, anticipating Miss Echo unlocking the doors at precisely 7:00 a.m. and cheerfully greeting, at 7:02 a.m., “Miss Stinson, it’s a pleasure to see you. How may I best serve your pursuit of scholarly explorations today?”
Now, if you’re astute, meaning you are particularly smart and clever (and we should be friends), you may be thinking: if the biggest objects, like planets, are made up of the smallest building blocks of life, shouldn’t the big and the small all follow the same rules? Why are big objects predictable, and small objects, of which the big objects are comprised, unpredictable? It doesn’t make any sense. It’s a problem not even Einstein could solve.
Enough about Einstein. My point is: Slug Brook Academy—no matter how boring it may seem—is definitely anything but normal. The building blocks of this school consist of the same chaotic quarks as the rest of the world.
So, when Miss Echo fails to emerge from the East Wing Stairwell to unlock the library at precisely 7:00 a.m., while I’m surprised, I’m not astonished.
I peer through the stained-glass doors. The library lights remain off, though I can discern a mess inside, piles of books litter the floors; bookshelves toppled over; tables and chairs overturned. It’s chaos. The predictable Miss Echo’s behavior isn’t explained by Newtonian physics after all. I pound on the doors.
“Miss Stinson,” Headmistresses sternly interrupts. She appears out of nowhere like invisible and omnipresent black matter. She glares with disgust, “You’re mimicking the behavior of an ape.”
I’m not sure how Headmistress thinks apes behave. I’ve read enough Jane Goodall to know apes don’t often visit private school libraries to return textbooks on quantum physics. Ah, maybe she’s suggesting I appear like ape. I’m tall with dangling limbs like a gas station tube man balloon monster. I haven’t caught up to my growth spurt yet.
“Miss Stinson, Slug Brook Academy forbids loitering in the hallways,” Headmistress intones.
Headmistress clasps her hands behind her back, standing authoritatively, like an army general deciding what to do with a defector. Her ankle-length, brown skirt and matching suit jacket are wrinkle-free, unlike her withered face, frown lines working overtime.
“Headmistress, forgive me,” I swallow, and crack my knees performing an awkward curtsy. Curtsying? Why am I curtsying? Slug Brook Academy is an old, drafty castle. Its vaulted ceilings and stone interior inspire awkward Renaissance-style greetings, apparently.
Some people always do the right thing at the right time. Girls like Madeleine Montgomery. She could talk herself out of a murder conviction. I’m not one of those girls. So, I curtsey, and babble, and I land on using school rules to my advantage.
“I’m…I’m trying to return this textbook,” I stammer, “It’s due today. It’s of the Highest Order library books must be returned before breakfast on the day they are due.”
Headmistress leers at the textbook, “Advanced Principles of Quantum Computing? You take after your mother.”
I nod, “Yes, I guess I do.”
It’s true. I’m my mom’s daughter. At least when it comes to intellectual pursuits. I certainly didn’t inherit her looks. She’s beautiful: delicate and doll-like. Not gangly and awkward. I’d say I got my looks from my dad, but I don’t know what he looks like or even his first name.
To Reggie, May the Quarks Provide Your Best Life, Maria. That’s what the dedication reads inside Advanced Principles of Quantum Computing, written with my mom’s signature chicken scrawl in electric green ink.
I knew it was a sign. A clue left by my mom. Another hint to the puzzle of how to get the hell out of Slug Brook Academy for good.
Headmistress removes her notepad from her suit jacket pocket, along with a skinny pen. “Indeed, your mother is a smart woman. She entrusted you to Slug Brook Academy to keep you safe. That’s why there are rules we must all follow. Even an intellect such as yourself.”
Dammit. I anticipate a citation. Headmistress is the strictest of all the faculty members at Slug Brook Academy, and, by far, the most judgmental. She sees in black and white. In wrinkled or pressed. There’s no in-between.
“Given you were simply attempting to abide by a rule, I’m issuing you a warning, Miss Stinson.” Headmistress rips the ticket from her notepad. She swats opens my quantum computing textbook, nestles the ticket in the front page and slams the book cover closed. “You’ll need to hold onto the book for another day. The library is closed. Miss Echo is ill.”
Ill? I’m startled. In my notebook, there’s not one observation of sniffles or throat clearing. No one ever gets sick at Slug Brook Academy.
Against my better judgment, I ask, “Is… everything OK?”
“It’s not polite to pry,” Headmistress answers, matter-of-factly. “Now, off to breakfast.”
Dining Hall, 7:30 a.m.
Madeleine Montgomery sticks out her oxford shoe and I trip on my way to the loner table, home of the socially rejected in the Dining Hall. My two poached eggs roll off from my cafeteria tray and explode on the stone floor, exposing runny yolks.
“Nerd alert!” Madeleine taunts.
Madeleine’s gaggle of wannabes laugh hysterically. They’re spitting images of Madeleine, trying their best to copy her style—hair, straight with a side part, tucked behind an ear with a bejeweled bobby pin; ears: studded with pearls; lips: accentuated with a subtle gloss.
I consider slinking away. Then, I turn on my heel. “So, what if I’m a nerd?”
Madeleine Clone #1, a freckled girl named Betsy, claps her hands as though she’s Marie Curie discovering radiation, “She admits it!”
“The world—the world would be better off with more nerds!” I stammer.
Madeleine furrows her brows. “Really? That’s your come back?”
“Well, certainly, Madeleine, if your father had actual nerds working for his health and safety regulatory compliance department, his Signature White Burgers wouldn’t have caused so much E. Coli! How much did he settle that class action for? Fifteen million? Now, that could buy you a whole army of sycophants to act as your friends.”
“What’s a sicko pant?” Clone #2, a gum chewing brunette named Verna, asks.
“It’s sycophant, not sicko pant,” Madeleine snaps. “It means a person who excessively kisses a powerful person’s butt to gain an advantage. Daddy’s got a lot of them and he’s successful, so whatever, Riri. Go back to your loser table.”
The clones squeal a cacophony of: “Buh bye!” “Turn around!” “See ya!” “Get out of here!”
I sit down for breakfast to pick at the single slice of grapefruit that remains on my tray. I’m shook, but not because of Madeleine’s meanness. She called me Riri. That’s what my close friends call me. How does Madeleine even know that?
It’s like the weird recurring dream I’m having, starring none other than Madeleine Montgomery herself, the one Freud would have a field day with! In my dream, Madeline and I are friends…Maybe more. We’re confined to adjacent hospital beds, strapped down with restraints. Madeleine’s scared. I can see it in her blue eyes.
“I’ll miss you, Riri,” Madeleine whispers, as a man in scrubs and a lab coat injects a substance into an IV that leads into her arm. “I wish I could remember you.”
Infirmary, 10:45 a.m.
Riri. Riri. Riri.
The sound of Madeleine’s voice rings in my head as I walk in a hallway of the infirmary of Slug Brook Academy’s South Wing. In my notebook, there’s no observation of an infirmary in this area, and I wonder if before now, did it even exist? Maybe it didn’t come to being until it was observed, until it was needed by a student. Quantum physics is weird.
Miss Sierra huffs and puffs, stomps of her kitten heels echoing off the sterile tile walls, like she’s an elephant on silts.
Madeleine smacks her lips and whines, “I don’t understand why can’t just replace Poppy and get on with rehearsal. This is a waste of time.”
“All I got is time to waste.” Sunny skips after Miss Sierra.
“Speak for yourself,” Madeleine barks. “Not everyone is a lazy flower child lacking ambition.”
“Girls, best behavior for Miss Adams. We wouldn’t want to upset our star!” Miss Sierra pushes open a set of doors to a patient ward comprised a long, narrow room with a single row of empty hospital beds separated by thin curtains.
I keep alert for signs of Miss Echo, but she’s nowhere to be seen. Only the last bed is occupied, next to a window covered by a blind, a mint pastel green rotary phone perched on its ledge.
Poppy Adams lies supine, her head wrapped in a bandage, cucumbers resting on her swollen eyes. She’s fallen asleep with a lunch tray on her lap—sandwich picked apart, an ornate, bronze vase holding a bouquet of daisies, a glass of orange juice, untouched.
Miss Sierra sits on Poppy’s hospital bed and carefully removes the cheese-stained cucumbers from Poppy’s face, returning them to the sandwich, revealing black eyes. Poppy comes to, stunned. “Wakey, wakey, Miss Adams. Your castmates are here to see you.”
Poppy squirms upright. “Let me guess,” she says, grudgingly, “They’ve brought rehearsal to me.”
Miss Sierra adjusts Poppy’s pillows and places her lunch tray on the window ledge. “What’s that saying? The show must go on?” Miss Sierra opens the window blind, Poppy squinting from the sudden light. Outside, autumn leaves cling to branches. Birds chirp, gathering fallen acorns for winter storage.
Madeleine crosses her arms. “I’m not sure if you understand how to read a book, but it doesn’t require brawling with a bookcase.”
“It wasn’t the bookcase I fought,” Poppy mumbles.
My mind flashes to the chaotic mess of the library. It looked like the aftermath of a battle royale. My stomach clenches. I suddenly worry for Miss Echo, the librarian who mysteriously “fell ill”.
“Huh? What happened?” Sunny approaches Poppy, then reverses. “You’re not contagious, are you?”
Miss Sierra interrupts, frantic. “Oh girls, don’t inundate Poppy with questions. She’s not feeling well. Perhaps bringing visitors was ill-advised.” She grabs the hospital curtain and begins to close it shut, shooing us away.
“It’s OK, Miss Sierra. As they say, the show must go on,” Poppy says with dramatic flair. “Can you bring me a glass of water? Sparkling. Room temperature.”
“Oh…” Miss Sierra ponders the request. “I suppose. So long as the girls aren’t bothering you. Keep focused on the play.”
“Trust me, I’m a professional,” Poppy assures.
Miss Sierra nods and quickly exits through the swinging doors of the patient ward.
“Now, are you going to tell us what really happened?” Madeleine asks, impatiently.
“You won’t believe me,” Poppy shakes her head.
“The librarian attacked me.”
“Miss Echo?” I ask. “Miss Echo attacked you?”
“She’s not capable of slamming a door,” Madeleine dismisses.
“Told you so,” Poppy shrugs.
Madeleine huffs. “You expect me to believe you ruined rehearsal because Miss Echo, the librarian, attacked you? That’s the dumbest excuse I’ve ever heard.”
“I didn’t do this to myself.”
“You’re a drama queen, is all I’m saying,” Madeleine says.
Sunny paces. She takes a daisy from the heavy-looking bronze vase and wraps a lock of her strawberry blonde hair around its stem. “Hmm, it all adds up, really. It’s Pig Flu. It makes people go nutso. Wacky in the head. I always knew there’d be an outbreak at Slug Brook, eventually. We’re not as safe as we think.”
“The only whack-job here, is you,” Madeleine spits.
Sunny takes another daisy from the vase and plucks its petals. “To think, you could have just as easily taken after your mother. Too bad.”
Madeleine’s cheeks turn red. “How dare you talk about my mother!”
“Poppy doesn’t have Pig Flu,” I say, diverting Madeleine and Sunny’s bickering. “She’s obviously not contagious, or Miss Sierra wouldn’t have allowed visitors. Also, she’s cognizant, prefrontal cortex normal. Infected patients exhibit roaring fevers and lose verbal functioning before…Well, you know.”
“So, you believe her?” Madeleine scoffs. “Aren’t you supposed to be the sensible one?”
“This school is weird,” I say. “I’m not the only one who notices that, right?”
Sunny leans on the window ledge. “Finally, someone says it aloud.”
“This is ridiculous,” Madeleine rubs her eyes, frustrated. “Why would Miss Echo want to injure you?”
“She didn’t,” Poppy says, flatly. “She wanted to kill me.”
“Kill you? You’re hardly important enough to kill. Aren’t I a more likely assassination target? My father is going to be the next President of the United States, after all.”
“You’re right, the world would be much better with one less Montgomery,” Sunny says.
“Go back to your bunker,” Madeleine snarls.
“Stop!” I demand. “Fighting will get us nowhere.” I sit on the corner of the hospital bed. “Poppy, what happened? What do you remember?”
Madeleine settles reluctantly into an orange visitor’s chair. “Fine, let’s indulge in the long-version of the worst excuse to miss rehearsal in recorded history. I’m ready for the actress’s monologue.”
“You should know, Madeleine, I was in the library to find a book by Albert Camus. His philosophy inspired Waiting for Godot, that’s what Miss Echo said, anyway.I wanted to better understand Vladimir, so I wouldn’t suck in my next rehearsal.”
Madeleine shifts uncomfortably in her chair. Poppy scans the room, paranoid. Poppy continues, “Miss Echo was helping me out, by the catalogue cabinets. She opens “Ca to Di,” then leafs through those index card things, finds “Camus”, hands the card over to me, then the telephone behind the checkout desk rings, you know the pale pink rotary telephone? Anyhow, she leaves to answer it, and I take the index card and go down the library stacks looking for my book—”
“How about the Coles Notes version rather than the TSN play-by-play?” Madeleine interrupts.
“Fine,” Poppy says, annoyed. “Miss Echo goes berserk and attacks me. I escape by pulling a bookshelf down on her, but it doesn’t stop her. Nothing does. I throw books at her, chairs, but she keeps after me like a wild beast. It was like she was possessed.”
The sound of kitten heels smashing against tile in the distance makes my nerves quiver. As Miss Sierra approaches, the smashing loudens. The ward doors swing open.
“Miss Adams, I found your sparkling water! Room temperature, just as you requested,” Miss Sierra sings.
Poppy quiets. We’re all quiet, absorbing Poppy’s story as Miss Echo approaches.
“Oh girls,” Miss Echo’s face falls. “This doesn’t look like a rehearsal.”
I jump, startled. The mint green rotary phone on the window ledge—it’s ringing.
Miss Sierra hands off the glass of water to Poppy. “Let me get that,” she says of the phone. “I wonder who is calling?”
Poppy’s skin goes pale. Dread overcomes her expression.
Miss Sierra picks up the telephone from its receiver. “Hello?”
I jump from the hospital bed. I slam my hand down on the hook switch in the telephone’s cradle. I disconnect the call, but it’s too late.
Miss Sierra’s drops the telephone. She grows in posture. Her pupils dilate. She growls. Suddenly, she turns towards me, baring her teeth. She lunges—
My instincts take over. I grab the bronze vase from the food tray on the window ledge and smack Miss Sierra in the head. She falls to the ground, her large rear-end breaking her fall. She contorts her body to position herself on her hands and feet like an animal and she hisses, eyes wild and wide.
She grabs my ankle with her chubby hand and pulls.
“Help!” I scream.
Sunny kicks Miss Sierra in the back, and Miss Sierra falls again onto her stomach. Miss Sierra squeals then she snarls, flashing her teeth at Sunny.
“It’s Pug Flu!” Sunny pulls a travel-sized hand sanitizer from her pocket and squeezes it on Miss Sierra like ketchup on a hot dog. It does nothing. The drama teacher roars.
Poppy jumps from her hospital bed and swings the pole holding her IV bag at the rabid faculty member, but Miss Sierra snatches the pole from Poppy and snaps it in half with a groan.
“That’s not good,” Poppy winces.
Miss Sierra launches half of the broken pole in my direction, and it hits my shoulder with a sharp pain, and I drop the vase. Miss Sierra runs with the pole like a javelin pointed at my chest—I’m done for! I’m a goner! I close my eyes!
But Miss Sierra THUNKS to the ground. As she falls, I see Madeleine behind her, holding the vase in her hand. Blood drips from the vase. Madeleine hits Miss Sierra in the head again, again and again, again and again, until a pool of blood pours from her ears.
End of preview! Feel free to email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org or to request a notification when new chapters arrive!